However, giving a quick answer: single sets, when performed at 100%, will always yield superior results compared to multiple sets performed at the suboptimal effort.
Is One Set of Weightlifting Enough
Single sets or multiple sets, which can give you the optimal results? In the weightlifting world, the debate is a long-standing one and is still an unresolved one.
When I first got into strength training, I can still remember having pondered a great deal over this.
Since then, however, I’ve become more than convinced (thanks to the wonderful trainer I was lucky enough to have) that single-set strength training is more effective than multiple sets given you are going all-out on each set you perform.
I know many will disagree with me, but I do believe that my CONVICTION is based on a solid foundation (which, among other things, includes my personal experience in this field). So, let’s look a bit further into this.
Why Do Multiple Sets? The Logic of Volume Training
This is the fundamental question, and commonly, there are two answers to this. The fist is a reasonably simple and straightforward one—which is ‘more is better.’ So, here we are talking about training volume as opposed to optimal muscle stimulation. By this logic, if one set is effective, then more sets, say 5, 8, or 12+, would result in a higher gain.
However, you can see the flaw in this reasoning right away. Here is what Mike Mentzer had to say on this: that if you start with, say ten sets and find that this doesn’t work, where do you go from there? Up or down? And how do you decide on that? So, the most logical place to start is with the least number possible, which is one set.
If that doesn’t work, you have the leave to go up to two, and so on. Of course, there is much more to this debate than this, and we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. But, just as an aside, Mike had also categorically put it that one set per exercise is the best means to achieve optimal results.
Also, volume training does not make sense since you can perform it only when you are not exerting optimal effort on a single set. So, for example, let’s say someone has prescribed a multiple rep script, and he performs these multiple bouts but with a suboptimal effort which effectively stimulates nothing.
It merely beats reason how he is going to build size and strength following such a script, quite apart from the fact that volume training also results in longer recovery time, not to mention more training time.
The Logic of IRM
Now, to the second answer which has to do with the concept of 1RM or One Repetition Maximum. Most proponents of multiple sets will advance this concept in support of their view. Now, the first problem with 1RM is, of course, determining your maximum capacity and this in itself is a complex task. But we will come to it later.
For now, let us concentrate on the 1RM Percentage phenomenon. The single vs. multiple sets debate has been going on for a long time now, for more than 40 years. So, as can be expected, a lot of studies and researches have already been done, and the concept of 1RM percentage has grown out of these studies.
And as it stands now, the prescription is 12 reps an exercise for 75% of 1RM or 5 reps for 87% of a 1RM and so on.
But what if someone finds that he can perform 16 reps for a 75 1RM percentage? Or, on the other hand, he can only perform four proper reps at 87 percent? Do they dare to go against the prescribed repetitions in such cases?
The problem with the 1RM Percentage system, especially when applied to multiple set protocols, is its lack of accuracy with appropriate resistances and prescribed repetitions meant to achieve optimal overload.
When Did the Debate Start?
It may be instructive at this point to go somewhat back in time and find how, when and why this debate started in the first place. Now, the man responsible for setting the cat among the pigeons was Arthur Jones who, in the 1970s, came out with his theory that single set protocols were able to yield superior results as compared to traditional multi-set routines.
Jones came up with the concept of HIT or High-Intensity Training. According to this method, you perform a single set right up to the point of failure, and when you do that, the result achieved is superior to that which can be gained by performing multiple sets at sub-optimal levels.
This, of course, did not go down well with the traditionalists and subsequently, a heated debate ensued which, to be honest, continues to this day. As mentioned before, a lot of research has been performed in the intervening time, and so we have now concepts such as 1RM and VMF (Volitional Muscular Fatigue).
These concepts, though not identical, share points of similarities with Jones’ original idea of HIT which was mainly about trying to recruit and overload a maximum amount of muscle tissue on a single effort/set.
And to keep it simple, for all the developments that have occurred since and for all the new jargon invented, this concept still holds water and is still very much valid today.
The Difficulty with Hitting A 1RM
Now, for all that we’ve talked already regarding all-out effort, high-intensity training, etc. as well as their benefits, there is a snag here. And that is how to figure out what your 1RM (for an exercise) is.
Of course, if you have some experience in strength training, you will know that hitting your 1RM means ‘failing with integrity’, i.e., trying your absolute best until you eventually fail.
And this, in turn, involves the ability to hold your form even when you find that the weight is beyond you. And unless you have this ability and skill, you put yourself in serious risk of gravely injuring yourself.
In short, for any novice in the field, trying to hit a 1RM practically means walking a tightrope between making it and seriously hurting himself. In other words, hitting a 1RM is a learned skill in itself, and it takes time—and a good amount of time at that—to acquire this skill.
Hitting a real 1RM, for example, involves the ability to access all the required muscle software to hit that 1RM.
So, what is the way out of this difficulty? To draw upon my own experience (and again, thanks a bunch to my trainer!), you need to be willing to put time and effort to learn this skill. You will need to have the right techniques under your belt that will help you perform the proper movements to gain the most from any exercise.
The Linear Progression Routine
And this is what helped me build a solid foundation of technique—a linear plan, i.e., following a linear progression routine for each exercise. To give but one example, for the squat, I have prescribed the following progression: Bodyweight squat, Goblet, Double Kettlebell, Barbell Front and finally, Barbell Back.
And there were different progressions I was made to go through for each exercise/groups of exercises addressing different muscle groups.
And it took me more than a year to complete the linear routine, and it was only then that I was allowed to try a 1RM. One also needs to understand that a linear plan helps you learn how to access the high threshold motor units and that these are crucial in determining any real 1RM.
So Why Multiple Sets Are Still Popular?
This may incense more than a few, but even so, the most readymade answer to the above question is that most of us today are loathe to put in enough time and effort toward the realization of their goal.
We are after all living in the ‘jet set age,’ and we always want to reach wherever we want to reach as swiftly and as quickly as possible! Also, the presence of all Youtube experts out there has made the scene more muddled, if anything.
This is not meant to disrespect anyone. Also, we know this for the fact that there are many experienced trainers on whom the benefits of single sets are NOT lost. And yet, many of them will still advise multiple sets to their trainees/clients to oblige the latter since these want to gain maximum results in the shortest possible time!
To wrap up, we will repeat what we’ve said pretty much all through the article—single sets performed at 100%, will always yield superior results compared to multiple sets performed at the suboptimal effort.
Go all out and reach VMF safely and at the concentric failure point, spend a few additional seconds following VMF (it is a good idea to have a training partner at hand who will push you to do this) and you’ll find it surprising how these few additional seconds help achieve a productive overload.
Something which no multi-set protocol will ever get nearer to. You may take my word for that!
Finally, you’ll need less recovery time with single sets, and it goes without saying how much of a benefit that is. However, keep it in mind that those additional seconds post-VMF, in the early phases, will take longer recovery time— sometimes days—to help you adjust to that type of stress and to adapt to it completely.
Once you have got used to it though, you will experience a dramatic reduction in recovery time even for those high-intensity moments performed at the business end of an exercise.
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